A Backwards Institution
For one 20-year old black male, the very establishment meant to protect him looked to be one that would, instead, end his life.
Within the confines of his own home, on the corner of Frost and Bronte, the Orange Coast College student was held at gunpoint by five members of the University of California Police Department (UCIPD) after being mistaken for a burglar last fall on September 1.
No arrests were made that night in University Hills, an academic housing community of UCI faculty and staff that is served by UCIPD, but the incident has since sparked numerous questions about police conduct and how it is influenced by race.
UCIPD was not at liberty to comment on the incident due to an internal affairs investigation that is expected to conclude any day, but several sources close to the incident describe the following sequence of events:
In the days prior to Sep. 1, the neighborhood had experienced a number of mail thefts, and two hours prior to the confrontation, a household on the same street was broken into and had its mail stolen.
According to the notes of a concerned University Hills resident who spoke to an officer over the phone the night of the incident, the police were dispatched after a neighbor had called, notifying them that a potential burglary was in progress.
The neighbor had believed the residence in question to be temporarily vacated, as the resident’s parents had left for China four days prior, and upon seeing a car in the driveway and both the front and garage doors open, assumed that a burglary may have been taking place.
The resident, who requested that his name be omitted from the story out of concern for his safety, was in the house with two of his friends when he received a phone call from the police saying, “This is the police.”
Initially, the resident did not panic, as he had been smoking marijuana and believed that to be the reason for the call. The resident recalls looking out the window and seeing an officer holding a gun; he remained unalarmed, as he still believed marijuana to be the reason for the police’s presence.
At this time, five police officers were stationed outside the household and observed the resident looking outside of his window. An officer yelled out that they were PD and demanded that the resident come out with his hands up, only to have the resident disappear from view afterwards. This prompted the officers to form a perimeter around the household before repeating their demand a second time with their guns drawn.
It remains in question whether or not the officers had their guns drawn prior to the resident failing to respond to their demands the first time. In an email sent out to the University Hills community, witness Michael Montoya recalls that the officers had their guns drawn before calling out to the resident. The police account given by an officer to the neighbor who called the police stated that it was only after the resident did not comply at first that the guns were drawn.
The resident then came out of the house, alone, with both hands raised. He proceeded to state his name and mentioned that he was a resident of the house in question while he walked towards the police. Meanwhile, his two friends had retreated to the attic to wait for the situation to be resolved.
After being patted down, he was made to sit on his front steps and was repeatedly asked by the officers to provide proof that he was the property owner. However, with only a debit card on his person and no photo ID, he was unable to verify his identity. While being accosted, the 20-year-old male made sure to keep as still as possible.
“I felt like if I moved, they would jump me,” said the resident in an interview with the New University three months after the incident.
While three officers watched the resident, two entered the household to check for what they believed possibly could have been a hostage situation.
At this time, Montoya, who lived two houses down and had been observing the events from across the street before the resident first came out of the house, made his presence known by waving at the resident and saying, “I’m right here. I’m watching.”
This prompted an officer to cross the street and address Montoya, who both informed the officer that he was a neighbor and vouched for the fact that the resident did indeed live in the house. Upon being shown Montoya’s ID, the officer issued a “Code 4” — meaning all-clear — at which point all officers then proceeded to holster their guns and stand down.
At the same time, both of the young men who were hiding in the attic were brought down and made to sit by their friend on the steps.
The officer proceeded to thank Montoya and apologized for the scare, explaining that mail had previously been stolen on Frost Street, and that the police department received a report that someone was in the house while the family was on vacation. He went on to explain that, because the resident did not immediately open the door, the officers were unable to grasp what exactly was happening.
Shortly afterwards, all remaining units in the area left the scene.
More than three months have passed since then, but as a black, 20-year-old man who was held at gunpoint, the resident continues to hold reservations about the police force as an organization to this day.
“As an institution, I’m terrified. A police force shouldn’t terrify us, it’s backwards, and we can’t get the protections we need,” said the resident. “This kind of thing, it happens, they are not isolated incidents. They have to do with us not understanding each other well enough to keep from profiling.”
A Community Reacts
The following day, Montoya sent out an email to the University Hills community that provided a detailed account of what he witnessed, and questioned whether such measures were warranted.
“Is this ever necessary? Is our stuff ever worth taking someone’s life? What did the police officers think or feel justified being that close to using force? Are they skilled enough to shoot only when they are absolutely sure they are in mortal danger themselves? What scared me most was that if [the resident], for example, had the remote control in his hand, dropped it, or tried to put it down before walking outside, one of the five could have mistaken it for a weapon and yelled, ‘Gun!’ At which point, [the resident] would be dead right now.
“That is just one way it could have gone down. Thankfully, it did not. The officers were professional and courteous. I never felt any malice or hostility or anything other than professionalism. This disturbs me even more, however. Is this what excellent policing means in our neighborhood? And I am reminded of the assault rifle that was at the ready a few weeks ago during an incident at student housing. What is going on here, people?”
Montoya went on to note that of the “less than six black 20-year-old men” in the neighborhood, two of them were involved in the confrontation with the police, and requested that a community meeting be held in order “to explain, in detail, what happened, why [it] happened, how it could happen and how it can never happen again.”
While some members of the community expressed concern that the incident had racial overtones, as it seemed like a “pretty unlikely coincidence,” others were insistent that it was “strictly about the idea someone was in the home and possibly inside illegally.”
“Please don’t make this about race,” wrote one resident. “It was simply they thought the house was being burglarized.”
Others, however, were not as quick to rule out the possibility of race playing a factor, and supported Montoya’s request for a community meeting.
“In light of recent events in Missouri, Florida, Ohio and Texas, I don’t understand how we can tell parents and friends ‘not to make it about race,’” wrote another. “We are fortunate to live in a prosperous and safe community, but as Michael mentioned earlier, we need to understand how guns were drawn and what the policies are regarding that kind of action.”
Lemonade out of a Lemon
The parents of the resident, Martha Feldman, a UCI Professor, and Hobart Taylor, a member of the University Hills Homeowner Representative Board (HRB), were in China at the time. It was not until the evening of Sep. 2, U.S. time, that they first learned of the incident.
After hearing news about a series of recurring mail thefts, Feldman called her son to remind him to pick up mail. It was then she learned that the police had paid him a visit and asked him to verify himself as a resident, and that he had to turn to Montoya to vouch for him, but that was the extent of what she was told. It wasn’t until Feldman texted Montoya to express her thanks that she and her husband learned the full extent of what had transpired.
Feldman and Taylor immediately called UCIPD, and were soon connected to an officer who corroborated much of the information relayed to them by Montoya, but other questions emerged.
Why did the officer claim they never fielded a phone call to the house when their son remembers picking up the phone? And why were neighbors soon calling them to praise their son for being savvy enough to call the officers and describe what he was wearing before coming out when he did no such thing?
And although the phone call served to cement the timeline of what had happened, it did little to provide the reasons for the police’s actions.
“How could this possibly make sense? How could this possibly have happened? Why wait? Why would a phone call about an open garage door ever end up in five people pointing guns at anyone?” asked Feldman.
For Feldman, the question of whether race was a factor or not remains a mystery as well.
“I’ve seen the transcript of the call. There was nothing in there that mentioned anybody who was African American, and they sent five police officers, so that’s the part where I think it could’ve happened to any household in University Hills; and then, there’s the part where he comes out of the house, and they don’t believe he lives there,” said Feldman. “That’s the part where I just don’t know, the police officer says that [they] don’t notice race, and [they] would do exactly the same thing no matter who came out of the house. I don’t know. I have no idea, but that’s where it seems to me that there may be a racial component to it.”
The officer attempted to ensure Feldman her that her son’s life was never in danger by explaining to her that, when officers draw their guns, they do not wrap their fingers around the triggers, but rather around the metal loop, the trigger guard, that encloses it. However, this only exacerbated the issue.
“I went away from that conversation, thinking ‘Oh my god, their fingers were on the outside of the gun.’ How many seconds would it take? How many milliseconds would it take?
“That’s part of what has fueled my nightmares. I mean, literally numerous times a day, I see my son’s body riddled with bullets, because I know that any one of them could have said he’s got a gun and it would’ve been all over.”
As distressed as they may have been from learning how close they may have come to losing their child, Feldman and Taylor responded by carefully planning out a community forum with the assistance of Steve Cauffman, the chair of the HRB.
“We were fortunate, ironically, to be far away when all of this happened, and it forced a certain amount of perspective. Just the differences in time zones and the physical space made us not react immediately, but sort of think about what we were going to say, what we were going to do before we had a chance to talk to anybody about what went on,” said Taylor. “I think that initial experience … that made us continue to breathe, [to] take a deep breath and figure out what we were going to do without being reactive, without going from emotional reaction to emotionally reacting.”
As an African American man who grew up during the Civil Rights era, Taylor has the unique perspective of a man who has witnessed people with intrinsic biases act both for and against people of color throughout the course of his life.
“You sort of have to accept that as a reality, and then move and attempt to live as best and productive a life as you can,” said Taylor.
While Feldman harbors some concerns about the level of militarization within the police, neither Feldman nor Taylor harbor any ill will against UCIPD, and expressed a desire for them to become more integrated within the community.
“I think what happened, happened as much because people just didn’t know each other. That’s sort of the root cause. The police didn’t know the people living in University Hills. People should be able to call each other by name. People should know the names of some of the police, and the police should certainly know the names and the faces of a lot of the people who live there,” said Taylor. “This applies to students, this applies to everyone.
“That’s sort of the community-building aspect of this, that’s sort of what I think is the lemonade that might come from this lemon.”
Planting the Seed
Whereas the initial community reaction consisted of a myriad of emotions ranging from all ends of the spectrum, the community’s response was mindful and carefully deliberated. A town hall meeting was originally called for on September 9 in the wake of the incident, but was rescheduled so that the community could have the adequate time necessary to consider an appropriate course of action.
“We wanted to have a forum in which people could openly express whatever they [were] feeling, whether it’s doubts about the event even happening, support for the police, or [even] anger for the police,” said Feldman. “People could have their feelings heard and [then] we could move on to some kind of constructive way of engaging with the police without it just being a free for all.”
In deciding how to best create such a forum, the community sought out the services of Hector Luis Rivera and Melody Gonzalez to serve as forum facilitators. Through Rivera and Gonzalez, the community was introduced to the concept of restorative justice, which is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” According to Rivera, while the traditional model of justice is focused on determining an exact punishment for a crime, restorative justice instead looks to create a system of accountability and change through victim-offender mediation. Through restorative justice, both parties engage through a cooperative effort to repair the harm caused and to prevent it from happening in the future.
In keeping with restorative practices, Rivera and Gonzalez advocated for a second forum that involved both the community and police department, but had difficulty explaining why an additional forum was necessary due to the community’s lack of familiarity with restorative justice.
“One of the challenges was to get people to understand what restorative practice is and why it was going to be useful, why it was a challenge to do a forum and [why] the community probably wouldn’t feel as good if there was just one forum. They probably would have been frustrated,” said Rivera.
Sure enough, their proposal was soon accepted, and both community forums were held at the University Hills Community Center during the second week of December.
The first forum, which took place on Dec. 7, began with a presentation by University Hills resident and UCI Professor of Law Dr. L. Song Richardson about implicit bias and Fourth Amendment rights, which outline a citizen’s right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. One focal point of Richardson’s presentation was how implicit racial biases could occur even in people who consciously rejected racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Following Richardson’s presentation, attendees were divided into groups known as “community circles” with each circle headed by a resident that had undergone training from Rivera and Gonzalez two days prior. Each resident was asked to write down comments on post-it notes about how they felt as a member of the University Hills community and also ask questions they wanted UCIPD to answer, which were then pasted onto poster boards. At the conclusion of the forum, each circle took turns sharing and highlighting what they had discussed.
“The first forum was to engage the community more; to highlight values of the community, so they can see themselves more and be able to communicate once [they] see that people have similar values and have really good intentions. Sometimes we have needs to express these values,” said Rivera.
Before the second forum six days later on Dec. 13, which included the participation of UCIPD, Rivera and Gonzalez made notes of the residents’ comments and conveyed them to the police department in a joint meeting with members of the HRB to ensure that the police department would not blindsided by any questions.
“[Rivera and Gonzalez] really thought a lot about how to put this conversation together and how to make it constructive, both within the community and between the community and the police,” said Feldman. “Hopefully, at some point, the police will be part of the community, but in order for that happen, we have to not inflame and not get people to the point, where they’re like ‘I hate you!’, which can happen really fast.”
Rivera explained that, while the first forum was meant to identify the shared values of the University Hills community, the second forum was meant to facilitate a dialogue between the community and the police towards reconciliation.
The latter forum began with a recap of the developments in the first forum, followed by a presentation by Carroll Seron, Interim Dean of the School of Social Ecology and a University Hills resident about accountability mechanisms. Directly afterwards, Chief Jorge Cisneros delivered a presentation and response to community concerns, and used the remainder of the allotted time to host a Q and A session alongside other officers to the best of his ability. Both the police department and community residents appeared to be in high-spirits throughout, with both parties sharing laughs at the occasion joke in an otherwise carefully structured and solemn affair.
As successful as the forum may have been, Cisneros lamented that he was unable to provide fully comprehensive answers to certain questions due to time constraints.
“[For] some of the questions, I wasn’t sure what they were really asking, so I think that when we really sit back and do a really restorative practice model-based meeting where we actually all are sitting there, including the police department, we can ask some further questions so that we can really respond to what they’re looking for,” said Cisneros. “I know that we didn’t touch on all the questions from all the individuals there.
“I think as a representative from the police department, we’d love to be able to answer those.”
Although the damage brought about by the events on Sept. 1 cannot be fully amended in the course of two community forums, the foundation for continued collaboration and healing in the future has been set in place.
“This is a challenging thing that brings up a lot of harm for people, historic harm, it brings up personal harm, it brings up questions around institutions which [are] an embattled institution, the police, do we need the police?” said Rivera. “I definitely think the groundwork, which is [the] idea of seeking to understand with kindness, seeking to take responsibility if an institution is harming and to practice dialoguing about it to see how they can be less harmed, has been laid out.
“I think that idea is the best idea that was planted throughout the process.”
Reintegrating into the Community
Since the community forums, the UCI Police Department proactively worked towards becoming more integrated within the community. According to Lieutenant Joe Reiss, UCIPD officers are the first individuals present at every Homeowner’s Association Meeting, where they present a report on crime activities in the area in addition to answering any questions attendees may have.
“Now we’re part of that monthly meeting, where we come in and we’re actually a part of that [process] to provide information to them and actually hear any concerns, questions, or comments they might have about the PD and so forth,” said Reiss.
Reiss states the force is also in constant communication with the HRB, where they provide similar information and statistics on crime trends. Other initiatives currently being undertaken by the police department are the creation of a group of campus and community representatives to advise on UCIPD policy matters, supplementing squad car patrols with foot and bike patrols, engaging Dr. Richardson on implicit bias research and community academies that put citizens through officer training simulations.
Since being instated as UCI’s Chief of Police on Sept. 8, Cisneros has set about towards rebuilding the trust of the police force within the community, and as it currently stands, it looks to be an endeavor he will continue to build upon in the immediate future.
“One of the things I truly believe in is a community policing philosophy. The reality is to reach out to numerous individuals throughout the community; not just solely University Hills, but the campus and the medial center, as we have all of those areas where we police,” said Cisneros. “So it’s extremely important, in my view, for us to go out and engage and build relationships with those individuals; or constituents, is the way I look at it. It’s important, I think, to have a dialogue should an incident occur.
“I think building relationships on the day of a major incident doesn’t really work, I think we need to be engaged prior to that.”